Yes, it was a penalty.
We’ll get that elephant in the room out of the way right now. The decision of Portuguese referee Joao Pinhiero late Thursday night that somehow judged that a phantom foul on Bremer overrode the blatant handball committed by Fabien Centonze in the dying minutes of the game will go down as one of the worst calls in European football this century so far. It denied Juventus a clear penalty kick that, in all likelihood, would have sent Juve to France next week with an advantage in the aggregate scoreline over Nantes.
Instead, the official made a decision that, frankly, straddles the line between a referee trying to find an excuse to not admit he made a mistake the first time and giving credence to the theory that UEFA would use an occurrence such as this to punish Juve for their role in trying to convince everyone the Super League still exists.
It was a blatantly terrible call, but as bad as it was, it also papers over a key fact: Juventus should not have needed a penalty kick given on the last play of the game to have beaten a team like Nantes.
Instead of handily beating a team they are clearly superior to, they did what they have done so, so often since Massimiliano Allegri’s return to the team. They dropped back after scoring the first goal, they let an inferior opponent hang around, and in one single moment they were punished and lost their chance to win the game. The coach’s negative attitude — something I’ll get far more pejorative later on — once again invaded the team’s thought process, until it was eventually too late to recover. While it can be said that Juve were also unlucky after the equalizer, they should also have been far enough ahead where late nonsense call from a referee clearly not up to the task would have had such an impact.
The fact that they weren’t is yet another indictment on the way their manager approaches the sport.
Allegri got a boost with the return of Juan Cuadrado to the matchday squad, but Paul Pogba Arkadiusz Milik, and Fabio Miretti were sidelined with injuries, joined by No. 2 keeper Mattia Perin, who was a late drop from the squad due to flu-like symptoms. Allegri seemed to break away from the three-man back line he’d been playing since before the World Cup. Instead, he reverted to the 4-3-3 that everyone expected the team to be playing at the start of the season. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal behind the back four of Mattia De Sciglio, Danilo, Bremer, and Alex Sandro. Nicolo Fagioli, Leandro Paredes, and Adrien Rabiot made up the midfield behind the super-trio of Angel Di Maria, Dusan Vlahovic, and Federico Chiesa in attack.
Nantes coach Antoine Kombouare had a much fuller squad, but the entire team was operating under a pall of sadness following the tragic death of the 5-year-old daughter of forward Ignatius Ganago, who has returned to Cameroon on bereavement leave. They were also missing defender Quentin Merlin. Kombouare seemed to sense the talent gap at play here, and lined up with a 5-3-2. Keeper Alban Lafont had experience in the J Stadium, having spent a year starting for Fiorentina in 2018-19. He played behind the back line of Centonze, Andrei Girotto, Jean-Charles Castelletti, Nicolas Pallois, and Marcus Coco. Moussa Sissoko, Samuel Moutoussamy, and Pedro Chirivella made up the midfield, while Ludovic Blas and Mostafa Mohamed started up front.
Despite their defensive setup, Nantes came out of the gates pressing hard, but within three minutes Di Maria had announced his intentions for the game when he forced Lafont into a save with a powerful long-range effort. Di Maria quickly turned into Juve’s chief protagonist for the game. He and Chiesa started out hugging the touch lines, while Di Maria also dropped deep to get possession before he began to orchestrate.
It wasn’t long before the Argentine’s genius put Juve on the scoreboard. He found Chiesa running down the left channel with a gorgeous lofted pass, and the Italy international headed the ball back across for Vlahovic, whose teammates had earned him a simple finish.
Di Maria very nearly registered an assist for himself two minutes later with an excellent through ball that was just poked away from Vlahovic. The World Cup winner continued to attack with abandon, relishing the freedom to go pretty much anywhere in attack and forcing another long-range parry from Lafont. Just after the half-hour mark Girotto very nearly gifted Juve their second when Girotto felt he had to redirect a lofted pass from Sandro but only managed to put the ball toward his own net, where Lafont got just enough on it to keep it away from a pursuing Vlahovic.
But as much as it looked like Juventus were going to keelhaul their French opponents, Nantes started to creep back into things. By the end of the half Juve had generally ceded possession to them, and while they didn’t manage to generate much of an attacking punch, it emboldened the visitors to go into the half only down by a goal.
Juve would rue taking their foot off the gas. It happened on the hour mark. Di Maria had hesitated and taken one too many dribbles in the box, and when Fagioli regained possession of the ball, his pass was intercepted by Centonze. Nantes’ break was swift and utterly devestating, with Mohamed squaring Centonze’s ball first time perfectly into the path of Blas. Aided by an ill-timed slip by Bremer, the striker surged into the box and slammed the ball into the roof of the net as Szczesny tried in vain to narrow the angle.
Now, suddenly tied, Juve had to turn themselves back on all over again.
They almost benefitted from a moment of magic straight away when Vlahovic fed Chiesa into the left channel, and the No. 7 slammed it over Lafont’s shoulder, only to see it hit the bottom of the crossbar, bounce off the goal line, then off the inside of the post, and into the hands of the keeper. Four minutes later, Di Maria aimed a corner kick at the back post that kept bending and almost became an unintentional Olympico, only to strike the bar again over a despairing Lafont, who henceforth ought to be known as the luckiest goalkeeper in Christendom.
Juve continued to try to wake their attack back up, and nearly paid a very dear price indeed for their slumber when Moutoussamy unleashed a 30-yard strike that swerved wide of the post at the last second. In the 84th minute Nantes went on yet another rocket counter, but this time Bremer stayed on his feet and beat Blas to the final feed from Moses Simon. Juve finally got some juice going the other way a few minutes later when Rabiot played a one-two with Locatelli and burst into the box, only to see Castellotto stretch to poke the ball away from him at the last second.
As the clock ticked into stoppages, Chiesa scooped a ball into the right channel and into the path of Danilo. The defender has had some big late goals the last few years, but this time blazed his volley over, although it was a really difficult chance, having to track the ball over his shoulder in order to make the shot.
Juve had one last roll of the dice as the initial five minutes added in ticked away, when Cuadrado got himself a little space and delivered an old-school Juan cross to the back post that Bremer and Locatelli both attacked, setting up one of the most baffling and patently incorrect refereeing decisions we’ve seen in a really, really long time, denying the Bianconeri a final opportunity to get the win that they needed heading into France next week.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Had very little to do overall. Nantes’ only shot on target was the goal, which he had little chance to save. Beyond that, he handled his box well and was generally effective keeping the defense organized.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. A solid day, as he defended relatively well and even had a key pass and a shot on target going the other way.
BREMER - 5. He was solid up until he very much wasn’t. That trip on the goal was vital, and another in a line of mistakes he’s made since the World Cup break ended. He was absolutely on fire before then, so it’s worth wondering what broke his rhythm during the month in Qatar.
DANILO - 6. Not every day you see a center-back taking three shots, but Danilo was leading from the front late in the game and had one of the best chances to get the team back in front, although it’s tough to criticize him as the chance was a lot harder than it looked at first glance. His defensive work was steady as ever.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Solid numbers across the board. He completed 90 percent of his passes (including one key pass) and added a pair of tackles as well.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 5. His work rate was fabulous as usual, but that ill-advised pass that led to Nantes countering and scoring may loom large in this tie. What’s unfortunate is that Allegri is going to take that as a decisive individual error as opposed to taking a wider look at his system in general.
LEANDRO PAREDES - 5. His numbers weren’t bad, but the impact simply wasn’t there. He was brought in to be a difference-maker in midfield, but he has been anything but.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Easily the best mid of the bunch. He made three tackles, two interceptions, and two clearances, and was credited with four dribbles, a number bettered by only one other.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 6.5. Really took over in attack, especially in the first half. The pass he made that led to Juve’s goal was absolutely perfect, and he was dribbling past defenders all evening. The reason this grade is as low as it is is because he almost looked like he got too confident as the game went on and started holding the ball a fraction too long. That might’ve been a reason Allegri pulled him.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 6. His goal was one of the easier finishes he’ll ever have and he got himself into other decent positions, but he only took one shot besides the goal. Needs to make a more consistent impact in games like this.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6.5. Co-led the team in both key passes (2) and tackles (3). How that shot in the second half didn’t go over the line will be a question for theoretical physics.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5.5. He pumped cross after cross into the box, but few of them were really all that measured and aiming for someone. He did end up with two key passes though.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5.5. Made a key pass but only completed 68 percent of his passes overall. Still, he was an improvement over Paredes.
MATIAS SOULE - 5. Didn’t get much chance to make an impact, and the one that he did get he shanked well wide.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Impact was limited until that very last ball.
MOISE KEAN - NR. Fresh legs up front at the end, Kean didn’t actually end up touching the ball in his five minutes plus.
Massimiliano Allegri coaches like a coward.
He can talk all he wants about the team dropping off after the goal. Guess why that is, Max? Because you’re so dead set on defending in a low block, especially once you get up 1-0, that your team’s natural response by now is to bog down, stop playing the crisp kinds of football that got you there, and hunker down. In a lot of cases, that means ceding possession, but it can easily be, like it was against Nantes, exerting general but lackluster control of the game that can easily be shattered by the right move from the opponent. The coach sets the mood, and Allegri’s is clearly to go ultra-conservative once he has the lead.
He wasn’t always like this. The Mad Max that came up with things like the Five Star and a formation that managed to very nearly beat Bayern in Munich while being forced to start Hernanes certainly existed. But he’s not there anymore. Ever since the Champions League final in Cardiff, Allegri has coached from a position of fear. When the game is tied, he’s afraid of going down, and when he’s ahead, he’s afraid of an equalizer. This leads him to put the choke on what is a very talented group of players, never allowing them to really reach their potential.
Allegri has started getting defensive at the suggestion that he’s too ... well, defensive (lolz). In a sharp exchange with commentators from Sky Italia, he insisted that the narrative that his goal is a 1-0 win is overblown, and that throughout his career he’s always had a high-level attack. Insisting that pundits were overlooking the statistics of his career.
Again, once upon a time he was right. But again, Max has regressed since those days. If he wants statistics, here’s a mouthful of them: last year the attack was nowhere close to what he claims are his standards. Juve were by far the lowest-scoring team in last year’s top four. Teams as low as 12th scored more. His team created chances at nearly half the clip they had the year before under Andrea Pirlo.
Allegri can hold on to his glorious past all he wants, but his present isn’t nearly so rosy. Instead, he holds back a talented squad — especially in attack — that should be able to handle a team like Nantes eight days a week.
It’s a near certainty that Allegri finishes out the season, but once that’s over with, he has to go, and be replaced by someone who 1) cares about attacking football and 2) can balance the two phases of the game reasonably.
The second leg is next Thursday in Nantes. With the away goals rule thankfully a thing of the past, the objective is simple with the aggregate at 1-1: win. If you do, you move on. If you draw, extra time and penalties loom. Losing means one of the most embarrassing tournament crash-outs we’ve seen Juve be part of.
First, though, there are league matters to attend to, coming this week in the form of Spezia on Sunday afternoon.